How 2016 is (and isn’t) shaping up to be like 1987

The “collapse” occurred as I had just started high school.  The Blue Jays had a 3 1/2 game lead in the American League East with a week to go in the 1987 season, but lost their last seven, including the final three in Detroit, who won the division crown.   The final three losses were all one-run games.  Manny Lee had a ground ball go through his legs in extra innings to give the Tigers a one-game lead going into Sunday, where Frank Tanana pitched the game of his life in a 1-0 title-clinching victory.

Stunned Blue Jays players including Rick Leach (9) look on as Tigers celebrate 1987 AL East title Oct. 4, 1987

Stunned Blue Jays players including Rick Leach (9) look on as Tigers celebrate 1987 AL East title Oct. 4, 1987

I remember back in June that year, in my youthful exuberance, expressing to my vice-principal in front of my class my confidence in the Jays success that year, and how Garth Iorg could replace Damaso Garcia at second base.  A baseball man himself, he scoffed out loud and said “the Blue Jays will never win with Garth Iorg at second base.”  How ironic for me, then, when Iorg tapped back to the mound to make the final out to end the Jays season.  I remember leaving our house, walking back to my mom’s clothestand in the backyard, sitting on the steps and crying.

I really hope Blue Jays fans of this generation never have to experience that shock and disappointment in their lifetimes.  But the past couple of weeks have been troubling to say the least, and a two game lead in the division is now a two-game deficit with the Jays’ wild card status even in doubt.

So is it fair to start making comparisons between 2016 and 1987?  Well, here’s one troubling way it could be the same: Injuries to key players hurt the 1987 Blue Jays more than anyone would realize.

The slide that changed the 1987 AL East race: Bill Madlock upends Tony Fernandez, who breaks his elbow

The slide that changed the 1987 AL East race: Bill Madlock upends Tony Fernandez, who breaks his elbow

Number 3 hitter Tony Fernandez was lost in the first of the four-game series with Detroit in Toronto during the second last weekend of the season.  Number 5 hitter Ernie Whitt would go out with cracked ribs in the next series against the Brewers.  As a result, the Jays only scored more than 3 runs once in their final seven games.

This year, concern surrounds reigning MVP Josh Donaldson’s hip, which forced him to miss three games this week (he returned to the lineup to DH Thursday night).  It turns out Marco Estrada has been pitching with a herniated disk in his back, and his effectiveness is waning.  And Aaron Sanchez is dealing with blister issues.   Also, the Jays final schedule in 2016 is eerily similar to 1987 – four-game, then three game series against divisional rivals at home, finishing with three on the road against the team they’re fighting for the division rival.

But in many other ways, 2016 is quite different:  The collapse in 1987 was so sudden.  No one really saw it coming. It was shocking, which made it even more crushing.  Even though Tony Fernandez went out in the first game of the series in Toronto, the Blue Jays still won 3 of 4, and only needed one win in the last week to force a playoff.  Getting swept at home by Milwaukee was inconceivable, even after Ernie Whitt went down.  Now fast forward to the present.  The Jays have arguably played as bad as you could expect over the past two weeks — but there’s still 2 1/2 weeks to go.  The 2016 Jays have more guys who can step up and play like MVPs and carry the team than they did in 1987 – there were no Bautistas, Encarnacions or Tulowitzkis to pick up the slack on that club.

1987 AL MVP George Bell moments after Tigers clinch division title

1987 AL MVP George Bell moments after Tigers clinch division title

Once Fernandez and Whitt were out of the lineup, George Bell had NO protection in the lineup, and pitchers took advantage.  He ended the season in a terrible 3-for-27 slump, including just one hit in the final series in Detroit.  The other big difference is there are wild card berths at stake in 2016 that didn’t exist in 1987, where it was all or nothing.  Those permutations could factor into managerial decisions around pitching, etc. that could alter the eventual outcome. It is interesting that Detroit is one of the teams in the hunt for a wild card spot, mind you.

During this current slide, I keep hearing Blue Jays commentators say “someone is going to have to step up.”  Well, here’s the thing – in 1987, other guys DID step up.  Manny Lee hit a big triple to help the Jays win one of the games against the Tigers in Toronto.  Juan Beniquez hit a three-run triple to cap a five-run ninth off Dickie Noles to win another. My point here is this – it still wasn’t enough.

Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams walks away dejected after final loss to Detroit Oct. 4, 1987

Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams walks away dejected after final loss to Detroit Oct. 4, 1987

So what, if anything, can fans, observers or players learn from looking back at 1987?  I think you have to look at it from the Tigers’ perspective.  It’s never over until it’s mathematically over.  With so many games left, the Blue Jays have plenty of time to right the ship.  They just have to make each game count, as the ’87 Tigers did, and take care of their own business…because if you don’t, you just never know…